Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary, battled accusations on Friday that he had made America more vulnerable to a financial crisis after breaking with the Federal Reserve and refusing to renew some of its crisis lending facilities.
The move by Mr Mnuchin, in defiance of the central bank’s wishes for a full extension of its emergency credit programmes, unsettled investors already worried that the surge in coronavirus cases and fading fiscal support has weakened the US economic recovery.
The Treasury secretary’s decision also fuelled concerns that US President Donald Trump is seeking to constrain the incoming Biden administration’s capacity to tackle the economic fallout from the pandemic, as part of a broader effort to delegitimise and damage the future Democratic presidency.
In an interview with CNBC, Mr Mnuchin defended the step to wind down the facilities at the end of the year, saying it was “not a political issue” and there was “a lot of firepower left” to respond to financial trouble.
“We said: ‘These are emergency tools, and when the emergency is over let’s put them away,’” Mr Mnuchin said. “Well, the medical emergency may not be over but . . . financial conditions are in great shape,” he added, citing the strong performance recently of corporate and municipal debt as well as equities.
Mr Mnuchin announced that he would cut some of the crisis facilities — which helped prop up financial markets since the start of the pandemic — in a letter to Jay Powell, the Fed chairman, on Thursday night.
While the Treasury secretary supported the renewal of schemes to help short-term debt markets like commercial paper and money market mutual funds, he called for the termination of facilities to buy corporate and municipal debt, extend loans to medium-sized businesses and support asset-backed securities.
The Fed fired back in the first instance by saying that it would prefer that the “full suite” of its tools “continue to serve their important role as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy”. The statement marked a rare public split between Mr Powell and Mr Mnuchin, who have generally had good relations throughout the crisis.
In a letter to Mr Mnuchin on Friday afternoon, however, Mr Powell declined to escalate tensions with the Treasury department any further. He said the lending facilities were “novel and complex programmes” that helped prevent “severe disruptions” in financial markets, and he was “pleased with all that we have accomplished together this year”.
The Fed chair also committed to abiding by Mr Mnuchin’s request to give back the remaining funds from the expiring facilities.
“We will work out arrangements with you for returning the unused portions of the funds . . . in connection with their year-end termination,” Mr Powell wrote.
Still, Mr Mnuchin’s move remained controversial. Kate Bedingfield, Mr Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director, called the Treasury secretary’s actions “deeply irresponsible”.
“We should be reinforcing the government’s ability to respond and support the economy — not undermining it. This follows a disturbing pattern of this administration putting petty grievances ahead of the health and safety of the American people,” she said.
Mr Mnuchin was also criticised by Larry Summers, one of his predecessors at the helm of the US Treasury under Bill Clinton. Mr Summers said Mr Mnuchin’s action was “just the opposite” of how Hank Paulson, the Treasury secretary under George W Bush, handled the White House transition during the financial crisis after the 2008 election.
He said Mr Mnuchin had allied himself with Mr Trump’s “burn the house down” approach, and Treasury officials should consider resigning.
“We cannot predict when or if a panicky cascade will happen in credit markets,” Mr Summers wrote in a tweet. “Aftershocks after financial crises (and earthquakes) are not uncommon. Removing a capacity to respond as Steven Mnuchin has sought to is wrong.”
Mr Mnuchin said fears that markets were being left without a backstop were overblown because the Fed’s short-term funding facilities would remain in place and others could be reactivated from existing Treasury resources without congressional approval. “I consider that to be a pretty good bazooka,” he said.
The Treasury secretary did not concede that he would be passing the department’s baton to the Biden administration in January, reflecting Mr Trump’s own refusal so far to accept the election result. Mr Mnuchin also said the unused funds from the lapsing programmes should be used for a new round of stimulus.
“We don’t need this money to buy corporate bonds, we need this money to go help small businesses that are still closed, or hurt through no fault of their own. For people who are going to be on unemployment, and unemployment is running out,” he said.
Mr Mnuchin said he and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, would be discussing the possible stimulus options with Republican leaders in Congress, though no negotiations are set yet with Democrats.
US equity futures dropped after Mr Mnuchin’s letter was released on Thursday. US equities closed lower in New York after struggling to find a direction for much of the session, with the large-cap S&P 500 shedding 0.7 per cent and losses in the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite accelerating late in the day to leave it down 0.4 per cent.
“This is a very unusual show of public discord between the Fed and Treasury,” said Gershon Distenfeld, the co-head of fixed income at AllianceBernstein. “Obviously there is some risk the withdrawal of this backstop spooks [investors].”
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